Daily Archives: September 22, 2007

Ensoulment Theories and the Abortion Debate

“Ensoulment” is the word which describes the point at which the body of the conceptus is said to be informed by a human soul. (The notion of a living being having “no soul” is a philosophical oxymoron, since the soul is the principle of life in a material being.) There are two basic theories of ensoulment. The first is called the “immediate animation, immediate ensoulment theory”; the second, the “immediate animation, delayed ensoulment theory” (also called the “serial ensoulment theory”). As the names suggest, the former asserts that, at the very moment of animation (when life begins), the newly conceived human is animated by a rational soul; while the latter holds that the human soul’s informing of the new body is delayed. This latter theory further holds that there is a progression from vegetative to animal to human soul as the principle of animation. Common in the middle ages, the theory was based on Aristotelian biology and is untenable considering all that is presently known from the empirical sciences. Many learned Catholic authors of the ages of Faith held this theory and advanced it in their writings because it was the accepted biology of the day. Continue reading

The Principle of Totality

On September 14, 1952, Pope Pius XII gave an address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System. On that occasion, the Holy Father discussed the Principle of Totality at length and in the contrasting terms spelled out in this question. The principle itself is the general notion that, since parts are ordered for the good of the whole, they may be disposed of, if necessary, for the good of the whole. The application to a human person is that “parts” (i.e., organs, digits, etc.) may be mutilated, severed, removed, or otherwise debilitated if, by so doing, one benefits the person. For instance, in the case of a cancerous organ which cannot otherwise be treated than by removal, it would be morally permissible to remove the organ (thus sacrificing a “part”) in order to save the life of the man who would otherwise be in serious danger of the cancer becoming systemic. In the Holy Father’s own words, “by virtue of the principle of totality, by virtue of his right to use the services of his organism as a whole, the patient can allow individual parts to be destroyed or mutilated when and to the extent necessary for the good of his being as a whole. He may do so to ensure his being’s existence and to avoid or, naturally, to repair serious and lasting damage which cannot otherwise be avoided or repaired.”[1] The Holy Father articulates the reasoning behind this: “Each of the members, for example, the hand, the foot, the heart, the eye, is an integral part destined by all its being to be inserted in the whole organism. Outside the organism it has not, by its very nature, any sense, any finality. It is wholly absorbed by the totality of the organism to which it is attached.”[2] Continue reading

The Principle of Double Effect in Contemporary Medicine

Sometimes the same act causes both a good result and an evil result at the same time. The question for the moralist is “Should such an act be performed?” The answer is that is can be, but only if four conditions are met: First, the act itself must be good or indifferent. Second, the good effect must not be caused by the evil effect. Third, the good effect and not the evil effect must be directly intended by the agent. Forth, there must be a proportionality between the good and evil result (i.e., the good must outweigh the evil). An illustrative example would be the use of the opium derivative, morphine, to ease pain in terminal patients. It is known that this drug also decreases respiration, thus it may expedite the death of the patient. It is also highly addictive, which would render it inadvisable to give to patients likely to live, as they could become addicts. If the terminal patient is in severe pain and competent medical professionals have determined that death in immanent, then it is perfectly permissible to administer the morphine even though respiration could be decreased and death thus brought on quicker.

The first condition is met, as the administration of morphine is not an intrinsic evil. The second is met, as the pain is not mitigated through death or decreased respiration, but by the analgesic effect of the drug. The third condition would have to be in the mind of the health-care professional. As long as he had in mind the alleviation of pain and not the euthanising of his patient, he would fulfill this condition. Forth, the good of the mitigation of severe pain (which could, after all, lead the patient to theological despair) is commonly considered to outweigh the evil of a decreased respiration leading to a quicker death.

(For more on Double Effect see the this on-line article by a Catholic Psychiatrist.)

The Natural Law in Medical Ethics

The natural law tradition as explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas is foundational for Catholic medical ethics. Here is a very brief description of the Natural Law theory of Thomas Aquinas as it affects that field of moral theology. Included in the description are (a) the historical antecedents of Natural Law, (b) the remote and proximate foundation of Natural Law, (c) the specification of the first principle and precept of Natural Law, (d) the formulation of the specific principles of Natural Law, and (e) the limitations as the movement to made from general principles to contingent action, and (f) the response of the Natural Law position to a particular issue in medical ethics.

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” Continue reading